How to help build your child's friendship skills

How to help kids develop friendships.
How to help kids develop friendships. Photo: Getty

“‘We'll be friends forever, won't we, Pooh?’ asked Piglet. ‘Even longer,’ Pooh answered.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

There is something quite special, even magical about close friendships – no matter what age we are.

Moments of joy and delight shared with people we value not only make life more fun – they have hidden layers of benefit.

Friendships build human connectedness, bondedness and create life-affirming experiences that can help build emotional, social and psychological competence.

We’re biologically wired to be social beings – living in close proximity and working cooperatively to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all members of our community, indeed the survival of the species.

Positive human relationships are also the most significant protective factor in resilience studies, meaning when adversity arrives in our lives, we are more physically and psychologically buoyant when we have family and friends who care for us and whom we care for.

The beginnings of friendship

Young children under three can form significant friendships quite simply by spending lots of time with other children when in the company of their mums, dads or primary caregivers in non-threatening environments like homes or playgroups.

Australian child psychologist Dr Louise Porter believes most children find it difficult to manage relationships with large numbers of children, or without the presence of a loving consistent caregiver until around three. This is because after nurturing, the need to belong and feel safe are the next primary needs we must meet for children.

Children in large long-based child care services can still get these primary needs met by caring, consistent caregivers, especially when in the hands of experienced and well-trained staff who seldom have large groups of children together in the baby and toddler rooms.

Helping children make friends

Nothing tears at a parent’s heart strings like the words, “No-one wants to play with me!” or “I have no friends!”. How can we help our children form good friendships that will not just be fun but will be supportive and long-lasting like Winnie the Pooh and Piglet?

Firstly, there are generally some differences between most girl and boy friendships. Boys often use less verbal communication to build their friendship bonds and so they actually need to spend more face-to-face time playing together doing physical stuff.

Creating ‘adventure type’ opportunities for young lads that create lots of ‘dopamine’, the brain chemical that makes us feel alive, engaged and interested, helps build stronger connectors of affection.

Boys’ are often more fragile around friendships than girls — and some aggressive behaviour from young boys can see the absence of a good friend being the root cause of the anger. The reverse is also true.

Girls can tend to be more like butterflies – flitting around being friends with lots of kids. This is helpful because girls can also tend to be best friends today, worst enemies tomorrow and in a few days back to being besties!

As parents you can help by not stepping into girl friendship issues and sorting them out – just be quietly supportive and encouraging, reminding your daughter about empathy – and explore how others may feel when we are mean and unkind.

Secondly, having shared interests is a huge ‘glue’ that bonds friendships – no matter what age. Your circle of adult friends with children will likely have similar interests. Like definitely attracts like – so making time to have shared afternoons, picnics, camping trips, sporting gatherings and birthday celebrations with lots of familiar adults and kids helps enormously to develop the social awareness that nurtures good friendships.

The same goes for cousins, who often develop friendships beyond blood connections. If you live near your siblings – consciously nurture the family friendships with time, energy and enthusiasm. My sons still enjoy catching up with their cousins, and their childhood antics and stories are still the source of much mirth and enjoyment.

Next, having frequent catch ups including sleepovers and weekend visits as children get older allows them to spend lots of quality time in each other’s company. Be mindful of keeping time on technology to a sensible level so the friends can actually build their verbal, cooperative play capacity.

Active physical interaction is essential to building human connectedness – then when the technology is present, it can enhance what has already been built.

Endless hours of play helps children develop a ‘play code’ which includes learning how to take turns, how to share, and how to win and lose with a degree of grace. This code, when developed early in life, will be an excellent protector against bullying. Instead of anti-bullying programs we’d do better to focus on ‘making friends’ programs instead. Having children of different ages spend time together also helps younger children develop life skills that enhance getting on with others.

Friendship conflicts, much like sibling rivalry, are a normal part of life. Helping children resolve them by making them aware of managing different wants, needs and big ugly emotions is part of our role.

Nothing works better at building positive affection and companionship in childhood than real play – in all forms – imaginative, competitive, unstructured, organised, free range and adventuresome.

So the best start to building friendships is to create opportunities that help children and friends get in the right frame of mind for fun – cubby under the dining table, a huge fridge box to spend the day in, teddy bears picnic, trips to the beach, the park or nearby nature reserve – then make yourself a cuppa and let them do the rest.

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Maggie Dent is a parenting author, educator, speaker and mother of four sons. In July, she will release her seventh book, 9 Things: A back-to-basics guide to calm, common-sense, connected parenting birth–8.